A name which at first was restricted to the subjects of the Kingdom of Juda, but which after the Babylonian exile became the common name for the race descended from Jacob and for the followers of the Mosaic religion.
Before the coming of Christ they were the chosen people of God among whom the Saviour of the world was destined to appear.
They were elected by God in the person of Abraham, who left Ur, a city of the Chaldees on the Euphrates River, to settle in southern Chanaan.
Jacob, his grandson, during a famine moved with his family to Egypt, where his descendants in the course of about 400 years multiplied rapidly; but when persecuted by the Egyptians, they were led out of Egypt, at God's command, by Moses, who likewise organized them into a theocratic nation.
Josue, the successor of Moses, brought them pack to Chanaan, and divided its territory among the twelve tribes, which made up the nation.
The land had to be taken by force from the original inhabitants.
During the period of conquest, the union among the tribes was rather loose.
There was no central government, but there was a common center of worship.
Samuel succeeded in effecting a union among the tribes, which was further strengthened when a kingdom was established and Saul was chosen as ita first king.
Under his successors, David and Solomon, the nation reached the height of its glory; but Solomon's building activities, and his luxurious mode of life gradually increased taxation till it became oppressive and when Roboam, his son and successor, refused to lighten the burden, the ten northern tribes revolted, and formed the Kingdom of Israel; the two southern tribes, however, remained faithful to David's house, and formed the Kingdom of Juda.
The history of both kingdoms is largely a chronicle of wars and intrigues.
There was constant fighting amongst themselves, and a desperate effort to ward off foreign invaders.
After a hectic existence of about 211 years, the northern kingdom was conquered by Sargon in 722 BC and annexed to the Assyrian Empire.
About 140 years later, the southern kingdom of Juda was overrun by Nabuchodonosor, and Jerusalem was captured and destroyed in 582 BC.
A large number of the inhabitants were carried off as prisoners to Babylon.
After a period of approximately 70 years, Cyrus, King of Persia, gave the exiles permission to return, and about 50,000 Jews followed Zorobabel to Palestine in 538 BC.
Other expeditions came later under Esdras and Nehemias.
Jerusalem and the Temple were rebuilt, and a tiny Jewish state was formed, subject to Persia, but under the jurisdiction of the Jewish high priest and a council of elders.
After Persia lost the supremacy in the East, Judea changed masters several times, yet the internal government remained undisturbed.
Soon, however, Greek-speaking colonies grew up around her, and Hellenic influence began to penetrate even into her community.
Intrigue and bribery on the part of members of the high priest's family brought about internal dissension and occasioned a series of Syrian invasions.
Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), King of Syria, made a violent attempt to hellenize the Jews; but a priest of Modin named Mattathias, and his sons, Judas Machabeus, Jonathan, and Simon, carried on a long and successful struggle against the armies of Syria, and at length, in 143 BC, gained complete independence for Judea.
Its territory was greatly extended by the conquests of John Hyrcanus, Simon's son and successor; then once more dissension and intrigue in the ruling family precipitated a civil war, whereupon Rome interfered.
Herod, an Idumean, was appointed King of Judea by Rome, and not long after his death Roman procurators assumed control of the government in Palestine.
The rapacity and cruelty of these procurators led at length to an organized revolt against Rome, which terminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and of its Temple in the year 70 AD, and in the dispersion of the Jews of Palestine throughout the civilized world.
Jewish colonies existed long before this date in many states both of the East and of the West.
Josephus (, xiv, 7,2) quotes Strabo as saying:
"Now these Jews are already in all cities, and it is hard to find a place on the habitable earth that hath not admitted this trihe of men, and is not possessed by it."
Since the Jews were forbidden by the Law to mingle with Gentiles, these colonies remained distinct, and formed "a nation within a nation."
As a rule, the colonial Jews obtained the rights of citizenship, along with religious liberty and the privilege of governing themselves according to their Law.
They had their own magistrates as well as their own courts of justice.
They were exempted from military service and from taxes which were incompatible with the Mosaic prescriptions, e.g., tax levies in the Sabbatical year.
Add to this the enormous wealth which they everywhere accumulated by their business acumen and tireless industry, and it is easy to understand why they were marked out for hatred and persecution everywhere.
What happened in the Roman Empire was repeated in every state where the Jews settled.
They grew in numbers and wealth, excited the envy and hatred of the native population, and were persecuted and driven out of the country.
After the downfall of Jerusalem, the rabbis gathered at Jabne, near Jaffa, where they reorganized the Sanhedrin, the Council of 71 Elders.
Driven from Jabne in the time of Hadrian, c.135 AD, they settled in Sepphowis, in Galilee, where the Mishna, a collection of the oral traditions about the Law, was published.
From Galilee they migrated to Babylonia, which remained for nearly five centuries the chief center of Jewish life.
During this period the Talmud, a vast compilation of discussions about the Law and the Mishna, was produced.
In the 10th century Spain became the principal center of Jewish activity, where in addition to further commentaries on the Law, books of philosophy, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and poetry appeared.
In Germany the Jews had settlements since 321 AD, principally along the Rhine, where Jew was synonymous with merchant.
In Italy they flourished for many centuries; while in France they were alternately protected and persecuted.
Universal persecution of the Jews broke out in Europe at the beginning of the First Crusade, 1096.
The Crusaders massacred the Jews of the various German cities through which they passed.
Subsequent crusades were occasions for further atrocities.
In the course of the 13th century the Jews were exiled from France and England, and in the 14th, severe laws were passed against them and bloody assaults made on them in France (where they had been readmitted), in Spain, Germany, and Bohemia.
During this and earlier centuries, the popes were the staunchest defenders of the Jews, and by a series of Bulls tried to protect them from oppression and mob violence.
In 1492 all Jews were banished from Spain, and in 1496 from Portugal.
They were driven from one country to another till, towards the end of the 18th century, "Edicts of Toleration" were passed by various governments which abolished the harsh laws against them and granted them civil rights.
Austria led the way in 1782.
France followed in 1791, Holland in 1796, Prussia in 1812.
During the last century brief anti-Semitic outbreaks occurred in various states, notably in Russia and Rumania, which were the occasion of vast Jewish emigration, especially to the United States.
The following religious sects exist today:
Zionism is a movement to make Palestine the national home of the Jews and the chief center of Jewish culture.
It also aims at restoring the ancient Hebrew language among the Jews.
- Orthodox Jews, who believe in the inspiration of Scripture and who cling to the prescriptions of the Mishna and Talmud
- Conservative Jews, who also hold the inspiration of Scripture, but who have adapted the prescriptions of tradition to modern Conditions
- Liberal or Reformed Jews, who have very lax views about the inspiration of Scripture, who try to make their beliefs conform to modern rationalistic theories, and who have abandoned many of the ancient customs and practises
New Catholic Dictionary